Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Three In A Row

One of the great benefits that I have been able to claim in following local women's hockey, it's the fact that I've been able to travel thanks to our radio involvement with the University of Manitoba Bisons women's hockey team. Today, I landed in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island as the ladies prepare for their second consecutive U SPORTS National Championship and their first tournament as the defending champions. What will be new for the team this year is that they aren't the favorites after losing the Canada West Final meaning they'll likely play as the road team in most, if not all, of their games in Charlottetown. This year has a different feel than it did last year in London, Ontario, so the ladies will need to step up and play their best three road games of the season if they hope to defend their national championship trophy.

It will be the first time I've had the chance to visit Canada's smallest province, but I am excited to be here. You may know the bigger things about PEI - Anne of Green Gables, potatoes, the Confederation Bridge - but there's a ton of things in and around Charlottetown that should be experienced. I don't know if I'll get any time to take some of the great attractions and experiences in, but the flight into the province's capital city had me anxious to begin my visit!

While I have accommodations already set, I'll be spending a lot of time at Bell Aliant Arena located in the MacLauchlan Arena and Aquatics Facility at UPEI. Built in 2004, the arena has been home to the UPEI Panthers since its completion. It has yet to experience a championship victory on home ice, but the Panthers will try to change that historical note this week. UPEI does have experience in hosting national championships with great success as they welcomed Canadian universities to the campus for men's soccer in 2005 and 2014, and women's soccer in 2010. I suspect that this previous experience in hosting the nation will make the 2019 U SPORTS National Women's Hockey Championship one of the best in recent memory.

The seven schools who will be joining UPEI at their campus include the four conference champions in the Alberta Pandas, the Montreal Carabins, the St. Thomas Tommies, and the Guelph Gryphons. Along with the champions, the finalists from the three non-host conferences will also participate as the Manitoba Bisons, McGill Martlets, and Toronto Varsity Blues make the trip to PEI as well. With Alberta, Montreal, and Manitoba all in Charlottetown, the top-three teams for the vast majority of this season will compete for the national championship. In other words, the hockey should be incredible, and this might be the toughest field in recent years from which a champion will emerge.

What that means for the team I'm following - the Manitoba Bisons - is that they need to play their best three road games of the season. It won't be easy as they play Guelph first who has an exceptional goaltender in Valerie Lamenta and a solid transition game under head coach Laura Flanagan, and there's likely a date with Montreal awaiting them if they win. Manitoba was 10-4-0 on the road this season with two losses coming at the hands of the Pandas, one to UBC, and one to Saskatchewan. If you include the playoffs, Manitoba was 10-6-0 on the season with four losses compliments of the Pandas. The good news is that the Bisons won't see the Pandas unless they meet in the championship final assuming both win their games. The bad news is that Manitoba is 0-5-1 against teams going to the championship.

All of the above means that the Bisons have to play three exceptional road games. They need to execute their systems as well as they did last year, be hyper-alert and attentive on defence, and support one another by making good decisions with the puck, smart line changes, and communicating with one another. No one will roll over for them as they come into the tournament with a target on their backs as the defending champions, but the sting of losing the Canada West Final will have hopefully refocused this team on their ultimate goal.

The last team to repeat as champions was McGill who pulled off the feat in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Manitoba has a chance to be the fifth team since 1997 to defend the national title with their opportunity this season. The action starts tomorrow at 3pm Atlantic Time/1pm Central Time on UMFM's webstreams with Jason Pchajek and myself calling the Guelph-Manitoba battle to kick off the tournament! We'll also have a live broadcast of The Hockey Show from Charlottetown while Jason will be providing reports for The Manitoban, so make sure you tune in this week for all of our coverage on both mediums as the Manitoba Bisons look to bring home the 2018-19 U SPORTS National Women's Hockey Championship banner!

Three solid road games in a row will make that a reality!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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